By Michele Markarian
‘Unveiled’ – Written by Rohina Malik. Co-presented by New Repertory Theatre with Greater Boston Stage Company. Blackbox Theater. Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through January 28.
Entering the black box theater at the start of “Unveiled”, a one-woman show written and performed by Rohina Malik, is like entering another world. Rich, tapestried Oriental rugs drape from the ceiling and cover the floors. A tea set rests on a tray, tabled next to a chair. An oud plays quietly in the background (the excellent player is uncredited in the program, or I would mention him). Jeffrey Petersen’s set design is elegant, formal, and inviting, much like Maryam, the first of five characters singly portrayed by actress and playwright Rohina Malik.
Maryam is a Pakistani immigrant and dressmaker who considers herself an artist. Business has been booming, she says, since the advent of “Slumdog Millionaire”. Over her own concoction of chocolate chai, a fusion of two desserts, Maryam carefully explains to an invisible client why she no longer is able to make wedding dresses. The retelling of the story is cathartic for her, and as she recites Rumi’s dance poem, she is fused again. Monologues from Noor, a Moroccan American who lost her husband, Inez, a black convert to Islam, Shabana, a South Asian rapper living in London, and Layla, a Palestinian immigrant and restaurant owner, follow. All five women wear hijab, or the veil. All five women, of various ages and backgrounds, want to be seen and heard for their humanness.
Malik is an interesting actress, made more so when she is standing up, almost beseeching her audience to listen and understand. Her mastery of accents – often using several in one monologue, to represent the character’s parents or accusers – is spot on. Her writing is very pointed and insightful, and brings a new awareness to old perceptions. For example, the parents of rapper Shabana are embarrassed by her hijab and want her to stop wearing it. She rightfully points out that hijabs aren’t cool unless it’s on a nun. Well, yeah! She’s right! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in this country complain that nuns were compromising themselves by wearing veils, have you? And Inez, who recounts a shameful incident where she took off her hijab because she was afraid, warns us that “Every American needs to realize, today it’s my rights, tomorrow, it could be yours.” Particularly relevant and chilling in Trump’s America.
Perhaps the most moving story is told through the character of Layla, who recounts what happened in her neighborhood immediately after the Towers fell. She is attacked and spit on by a mere boy, who is accusing her of being a terrorist. As the police go to arrest him, Layla pleads with them to let the boy go, and “the boy’s eyes changed”. A current of humanity and compassion passed through the two of them: “Human beings come from the same source. We are one family”. If only people could see it that way.
Liquid refreshment – tea, chai, coffee – is served throughout, and at the end of the show, chai is served before a talkback with Malik. Although much of the script is geared towards a better understanding of Islam and its people, I found it to be a hopeful show about co-existing and bridging the gap between ideologies. As Layla says, “If you are not concerned about the suffering of others, you are not worthy to be called human.” For tickets and more information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/